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GOP growing uneasy over DiFrancesco

Originally appeared in the Star Ledger on 04/02/01

Several weeks ago, about two dozen jittery Republican leaders gathered for breakfast at Drumthwacket, the governor's mansion in Princeton.

It had been a bad few weeks for Donald DiFrancesco, the acting governor who is seeking the GOP nomination to run for a full term this fall.

DiFrancesco had just acknowledged that the state's largest home builder had paid off a $225,000 debt in 1996 that he owed in connection with a real estate deal. That news came on top of the disclosure that a prominent engineer with millions in public contracts had loaned him $150,000 in 1994 to fend off a foreclosure.

What else was out there, they wanted to know.

The answer, according to one GOP leader who was present, was: "Don't worry. Everything's all out. Don't worry. Everything's fine."

But an increasing number of party leaders and activists are not so sure.

Last week, DiFrancesco's nominee for state treasurer was forced to withdraw following a report that she had been fired from her Citibank job in 1996 after being accused of misusing her expense account to carry on an affair with a fellow employee.

Making matters worse, DiFrancesco had agreed to an unusual arrangement that would have allowed the nominee, Isabel Miranda, to serve as treasurer while on leave from her job at U.S. Trust Co. of New Jersey -- a situation fraught with potential conflicts.

More bad news came on Thursday, when the Joint Legislative Committee on Ethics said it would review an ethics complaint concerning the circumstances surrounding a $1.2 million mortgage default, including the decision by a New Jersey bank to forgive $350,000 of his delinquent loan.

Few Republicans would speak on the record. But their concern was evident in interviews late last week.

"We're not on Def Con One yet. But we're getting there," said one Republican, referring to the military's highest alert.

"Nervous? Yes," said another. "Panicked? No. At least for today."

But DiFrancesco's problems have put his party in a potentially difficult position: With the filing deadline less than two weeks away, on April 12, there is little time to field a new candidate, should that become necessary.

One name whispered by some Republicans as an alternative is former U.S. Rep. Bob Franks, who narrowly lost to Democrat Jon Corzine for the U.S. Senate last year. Franks has said he has his eye on another Senate run next year and is behind DiFrancesco.

Mercer County Executive Robert Prunetti, a DiFrancesco ally, said last week that DiFrancesco continues to have strong support in the party.

"He's our governor. He's going to win this primary. Instead of moaning and groaning, they ought to be rallying behind him . . . You circle the wagons and you get out and fight," he said.

But one seasoned Republican campaign operative, who insisted on anonymity, compared DiFrancesco's candidacy to Bob Dole's lackluster presidential effort as the GOP nominee in 1996.

"The average Republican involved can't do anything to get him out if we wanted to," he said. "There's no faith that we can compete in November. Let it go by. We'll compete in 2005."

Ross Baker, a Rutgers University professor and veteran observer of New Jersey's political scene, said last week that for DiFrancesco, "the appearances are really pretty calamitous. It must be very, very unsettling to Republicans."

But DiFrancesco said Friday that it is not unusual for candidates to encounter rough patches, pointing as an example to former Gov. Christie Whitman's pitfalls during her successful 1993 race, when her campaign was rocked by an illegal nanny problem.

"Some Republicans were concerned a year ago and two years ago about my candidacy," DiFrancesco said. "Unfortunately, as much as I'd like to have everybody love me, not everybody does and that's politics."

He dismissed suggestions that his candidacy has been damaged.

"To think that things weren't going to happen, you know, is to some degree naive of all of us," DiFrancesco said. "We're human beings and things happen, and when you're 56 years old, you've been through a lot."

DiFrancesco said he has not seen any poll showing that he has been hurt by the negative publicity and predicted victory in both the primary and general election.

"I don't look at this as being that negative," DiFrancesco said. "This is embarrassing stuff in the eyes of some, but it's not something where I benefited from some political arrangement that was made."

His chief of staff, Jeff Michaels, said: "He's the governor, and the good comes with the bad. The fact is that he is the strongest candidate that this party can field. And that has not changed."

DiFrancesco faces Jersey City Mayor Bret Schundler in the June primary. The winner of that contest will face Woodbridge Mayor James McGreevey, who so far is unchallenged in the Democratic primary.

GOP county chairman -- who hold the key to grassroots primary support -- say they are sticking by DiFrancesco, offering support and saying such negative publicity is the price of gubernatorial politics.

"When you're the governor and trying to run a campaign at the same time, everyone's trying to take shots at you," said Dale Florio, a lobbyist who is also the Somerset County GOP chairman. "These side issues are unfortunate . . . (But) I think the voters have an incredible capacity to see much of this stuff as typical campaign mudslinging."

Other county leaders said the recent flurry of news reports about DiFrancesco's personal finances and business dealings were the natural result of his swift ascension to the job of acting governor after Whitman's departure in January to head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

"Are there going to be problems with a new administration? Sure," Warren County Chairman Walter Orcutt said. "But is anyone jumping ship? Absolutely not. Everyone is firmly committed to Donnie."

Privately, however, some chairmen admit they are increasingly antsy.

"We're all worried sick," said one chairman. "One, two more of these, and we've got real problems."

Staff Writers David Kinney and John Hassell contributed to this report.

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